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Complex, carbon-rich molecules found on Enceladus

New research on Enceladus shows that it has the potential to harbor simple extraterrestrial life.
By Joseph Scalise | Feb 20, 2019
A team of international astronomers have found organic, carbon-rich molecules on Saturn's moon Enceladus, according to a new studypublished in the journalNature.

This finding is important because it suggests the thin film that sits atop the satellite's oceans could be rich in organic compounds. If that were to be true, it would also further reinforce the popular theory that the moon has simple marine organisms living deep beneath its icy crust.

Previous molecules found in studies on the small celestial body measured around roughly 50 atomic units and only had a handful of carbon atoms. In contrast, the newly discovered ones are much more complex. In fact,Enceladus is not the only known celestial body to have all of life's basic requirements as we currently understand them.

"We are, yet again, blown away by Enceladus," said study co-authorChristopher Glein, ageochemist and planetary scientist of the Southwest Research Institute, according to Science Alert. "We've found organic molecules with masses above 200 atomic mass units. That's over ten times heavier than methane."

This builds on past research that found molecular hydrogen exists in the plumes shooting off the moon's surface. While there is no proof that certain organisms call the hostile environments home, small organisms do exist in such areas on Earth. As a result, such lifecould exist near the vents.

However, despite the fact that it is plausible -- especially considering the new research -- nobody is sure what those organisms would look or how they would behave. Those are extremely important questions, and the new research could be the first step towards answering them.

"This is the first-ever detection of such a large and complex organic molecules on an extraterrestrial water world," said study co-author Nozair Khawaja, a researcher at the University of Heidelberg's Institute of Geosciences, told Gizmodo.

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